The Last Duel Is More Than a Medieval #MeToo
Ridley Scott's jousting film is also a slyly subversive take on cultural perspectives.
You could be forgiven, upon hearing the premise for The Last Duel, for thinking that the movie is essentially a medieval Title IX case with a bit of bloody, muddy jousting thrown in. The trailers sell the 14th-century story as a sort of he said/she said—or, more accurately, as a he said/he said/she said—about a knight named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a nobleman named Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and the knight's wife, the lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), who claims the nobleman raped her.
But while the movie tells the story from three different perspectives, it affords no ambiguity about what happened when the nobleman barged his way into the Carrouges home and forced himself on the lady. What the trailers present as an uncertain accusation, the movie presents as fact. He raped her. It happened. Watching the assault on screen, even from different points of view, leaves no room for doubt from the perspective of a contemporary viewer.
But The Last Duel is much more than a medieval #MeToo. Rather, it's a gripping remix of many of the ideas that director Ridley Scott has engaged with for decades, in films as diverse as Alien, Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, and Kingdom of Heaven. It's a movie about female agency and power, religious complicity in barbarism, the primal physical demands of existence, and the nobility of survival in a harsh and unforgiving world. More intriguingly, it's a subtly subversive movie about cultural perception and perspective, and how power is preserved by institutional systems that everyone involved takes for granted.
The movie is told in three chapters, each from a different point of view. At first, we see things as Jean de Carrouges sees them: He understands himself to be a loyal soldier, slightly awkward but essentially honorable, who is betrayed by a better-looking, more worldly friend who first takes land that was supposed to be his, then claims a title de Carrouges deserved by birth, and then assaults his wife. In the second chapter, we not only see Le Gris as he sees himself—intelligent, careful, and possessing superior social and political judgment—but de Carrouges as Le Gris sees him: stubborn, stiff, foolish, whiny, and not particularly clever.
Near the end of his chapter, we see the rape of Marguerite de Carrouges as Le Gris sees himself committing it. He pins her down and listens to her cry no, but this sort of response is familiar to him, for it plays out just like a game we saw him play earlier with more willing targets. He understands his actions as sins, and asks forgiveness—but only for adultery, not for rape.
Thus the movie at least raises the possibility that he does not believe it was genuinely an act of force. Partly that's because it so clearly fits the gamelike template in his mind. At one point, he dismisses the notion of rape by insisting that Marguerite only gave the "usual protestations," as if he understands some amount of resistance as ordinary.
And partly that's because the entirely male-dominated social structures of the era reinforce the idea that what he did was not rape, indeed could not be, because the woman was attracted to her attacker. The movie doesn't excuse him—quite the opposite—but it does attempt to reveal how Le Gris might have understood his actions in the cultural context in which they were committed.
That context and its relevant social structures come most clearly into view in the movie's final chapter, told from Marguerite's perspective, which the movie strongly indicates is the real truth. And the real truth is that both men are selfish and despicable, that the assault was far more brutal than Le Gris understood or imagined, that her husband has abused her in different ways as well, and that she had little recourse, because the religiously inflected God-and-king-driven political and legal systems of the era treated women as men's property, not as individuals with their own rights.
Scott's films have often depicted cruelty and violence justified on religious grounds, and he's similarly been interested in female agency and survival in male-dominated spaces, so in some ways, this is familiar—if effectively orchestrated—thematic territory.
But there's something else going on here too. The Last Duel isn't just a movie about how bad men brutalized women under the cover of social approval, though it is certainly that. It's about how powerful elites justify their inhumane behavior, and protect their own, through lies dressed up as scientific, legal, or cultural consensus.
The film is bookended by a savage and satisfyingly rendered jousting match that turns two hunky Hollywood leading men into narcissistic dirtbags and then lets them beat the crap out of each other.
But the movie's key moment is a courtroom scene in which Carrouges and Le Gris both plead their cases. The assembled legal minds—all men, for it was men who ruled the day—determine that it could not have been rape, for Marguerite conceived a child, and children, they explain, can only be conceived when a woman enjoys the act. "That's just science," one exclaims.
The line is arguably too on the nose, and yet it hints at something lurking just beneath the film's relatively conventional left-leaning surface. Scott has always been a feisty individualist, a humanist with little regard for authoritarian systems or conformist ideologies, and in The Last Duel, he seems to be wondering, if not quite outright saying: If government and religion—the institutional authorities that ruled 14th-century France—could deploy false scientific authority to such inhumane ends so many centuries ago, what sort of barbarism could the facade of science be used to justify today? And how would today's cultural attitudes and expectations blind people—and specifically those in positions of power and authority—to their own complicity?
After all, Damon's de Carrouges and Driver's Le Gris were just ancient-times elites jockeying for their own status within a cruel and abusive system. But it was the only system they knew.
The movie's best trick, then, is to slyly suggest that many of us cannot truly understand what is around us, what we are doing, and what we are idly accepting, because of embedded cultural assumptions that have blinded us to the larger truth. The Last Duel explicitly presents three perspectives, but there's a fourth hidden in every viewing: your own.